Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Regularity: for Autistic People. Part 1: The Normality Fixation

(The title of this entry is a rip off of the "Autism: For Regular People" blog.)

Just read this post by Axinar wondering why neurotypical people get so upset over such little things as wearing inappropriate clothing.

I think I have a good idea as to why.

All human beings, autistic and non-autistic, look to a certain degree of sameness for comfort. This is said to translate for autistics into the widely known "symptom" of a need for routine and ritual, and having an inexplicable "meltdown" if one little detail is out of place.

For neurotypicals, the only difference is what details are focused on as needing to be the same.

For an autistic person, it may be a specifically comforting texture or sight.

For non-autistics, famous for being able to screen out "irrelevant" details as in the famous case of normal people not noticing a gorilla walking onto a basketball court while they're told to pay attention to the ball, it's likely to be a context-specific social custom. Certain things - like common neurotypical stereotypies such as thumb-twiddling, nail-biting, leg-twitching, and pencil-tapping - are filtered out as irrelevant, while other things, like the clothing you wear, seem to always be relevant in a social context.

In an office, you usually dress in ways that other people in the office dress, more or less. NTs get a general sense from subconsciously obserivng others of which patterns are appropriate, inappropriate, and irrelevant. If anyone violates this sense and wears something out of line - like a red dress or an old ratty sweater - then the NTs sense of "sameness" is violated. A "relevant" detail is out of place.

The result: a meltdown. (Or, to put it in traditional NT lingo: an emotional overreaction. Why are autsitics' emotional overreactions compared to nuclear disasters, and ours not?)

The meltdown may take the form of nasty gossip about the person violating the NT's need for routine (venting), and/or trying to restore the routine by putting pressure on the violator not to violate any of the relevant details. Oftentimes, nasty gossip, and subtle changes in behavior around the person, are attempts to pressure the person to figure out what's wrong and change it. Unfortunately, the NT's blindness to "irrelevant" details, and inability most of the time to even imagine them, can lead to some grave mistakes being made, as when an autistic is exposed to extreme sensory overload by the neurotypical's attempt to force him or her to "act normal" at the cost of learning and enjoying what the autistic actually can learn and enjoy.

Now why do people need sameness at all?

Possibly because if something is out of place, our instincts tell us that the cause of that out-of-place-ness may be dangerous: a predator may have moved that blade of grass; the person wearing the strange clothes is an enemy invading our territory; those odd movements could be a sign of disease, or of the person about to do something dangerous. Sameness means that there is no evidence of such an outside threat having come by. Sameness is safe.

So...I think normality is the "classically neurotypical" version of routine and ritual, which is an expression of the basic human need for reassuring sameness, which may come from the instinctive sense that if something's out of place it's likely due to a predator or threat. Hopefully this will help confused autistic people reading this blog to understand us non-autistics and the weird things we do sometimes.


Axinar said...

"Why are autistics' emotional overreactions compared to nuclear disasters, and ours not?"

Mainly because autistics get full-blown irrational "get out the dart gun" type of stuff and NT's tend to just stop working and start calling everyone in the company with, "Did you see what SHE came in here almost wearing this morning???"

reform_normal said...

hmm. Yeah, we do tend to find "socially appropriate" ways of overreacting...

It's all about the social appropriateness - following the NT routines and rituals. On a primitive level, it's probably the same.

Axinar said...

Yes, it may very well be a similar process.

Sometimes I hear it called "impulse control" and so on, but, I'd have to probably say a "meltdown" implies a certain level of uncontrolability - in some ways more akin to a seisure than, perhaps, a neurotypical "hissy fit".

Marla Fauchier Baltes said...

I never have liked calling my (autistc/chromosome disorder) daughter's difficult times, 'melt downs' or 'fits'. I would have to say they resemble more of a seizure than anything else in the way she can't control her emotions for a time. I do wish the language I used was different I just don't know what to say instead sometimes. Very interesting blog you have. As my daughter becomes more expressive and able to express her own inner thoughts I hope she can enlighten me even more on what goes on.

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